History's First Draft Of The Bush Legacy

George W. Bush taking the oath of office, Jan. 20, 2001.
George W. Bush taking the oath of office, Jan. 20, 2001.

How will history assess the Bush legacy? Correspondent Thalia Assuras starts by looking back to his first inaugural eight years ago:

"I, George W. Bush do solemnly swear …"

As always, it was a day for new beginnings. On January 20, 2001, George Walker Bush became the 43rd president of the United States …

" … to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States …"

… his presidency and the future, a blank slate, back before 9/11, before the Iraq War, before Abu Ghraib, before Katrina swept ashore, before the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

In nine days, after eight turbulent years, George Bush will depart Washington, and leave behind a radically different country and a changed world.

And the inevitable wrangling will officially begin over the Bush legacy: How this man and this presidency will be viewed through the long lens of history.

"I think he'll be able to look himself in the mirror when he is done and say, I did my best, I made decisions based on principle," said former Bush communications director Dan Bartlett.

"As a judicial historian looking at what's occurred on his watch, it is almost void of genuine accomplishment," said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.

"In foreign policy where he has taken so much criticism, I think the assessment of history will be surprisingly positive," said former Bush speechwriter David Frum.

"I think President Bush might very well be the worst president in U.S. history," said Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joseph Ellis.

Because today's historians, including Ellis, get to write the first draft, the Bush legacy seems to be in for a bumpy start.

"He's unusual," said Ellis. "Most two-term presidents have a mixed record. Lyndon Johnson, one of the greatest achievements in the 20th century was civil rights legislation; on the other hand you have the extraordinary tragedy of Vietnam. Even Richard Nixon opened the door to China and had foreign policy credentials. Bush has nothing on the positive side, virtually nothing."

And that's not a minority opinion. In a 2006 Siena College survey of 744 history professors, 82% rated President Bush below average, or a failure.

Last April, in an informal poll by George Mason University of 109 historians, Mr. Bush fared even worse - 98% considered him a failed president. Sixty-one percent judged him, as Ellis does, one of the worst in American history.

"John Adams, the second president, said that there's one unforgivable sin that no president will ever be forgiven, and that is to put the country into an unnecessary war," Ellis said. "I think that Iraq has proven to be an unnecessary war, and will appear to be more unnecessary as time goes on."

Assuras asked journalist Bob Woodward if the Iraq War is the defining component of his presidency.

"The Iraq War is the defining variable because it was his decision," he said. "No one has the illusion that a president is commander in chief of the economy, he is not. He is commander in chief of the military, and in the end you wind up getting judged and held accountable for what you're in charge of."

Woodward has written four books on the Bush presidency.

"I've interviewed him for close to 11 hours," Woodward said. "One of the questions I asked him was about how history would look at his Iraq War. And he rightly says, 'We won't know, we'll all be dead.' May look very different in 50 years, if there's democracy, more stability. If that's the case it's quite possible historians (who are measuring that legacy) will look back on it and say he did fine."

"When we look around the world, we see all sorts of quiet successes for the United States over the past eight years," said Frum, now with the American Enterprise Institute. Regardless of how Iraq turns out, he says, it's not the only issue on the table.

"We have this rising power of China that has shown a lot of aggression," said Frum. "The Bush administration has managed to avoid confrontation with China, to open the way to a peaceful and normal future for China.

"And where there have been new governments from Japan to South Korea to Germany to France, each change of power has brought to power a more friendly government to the United States," said Frum.

On the domestic side, President Bush claims credit for the No Child Left Behind Act, the prescription drug benefit, and putting a conservative stamp on the federal courts.

He's recognized for progress fighting AIDS in Africa, and just last week set aside a huge tract of the Pacific as a protected wildlife area.

Opinions vary on the impact of these and other programs, but the consensus is Bush's legacy will largely rest on one event - 9/11 - and his response to the attacks.

"At the eye of the storm, he was a very calm person," said Bartlett, "making very methodical decisions. This was a man who met his moment in many respects as a leader."

Bartlett, now a CBS News consultant, was President Bush's communications director, and was with him during the attacks.

Mr. Bush's greatest legacy, he believes, is that there have been no more attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11, "which at the time was not something that was considered to be possible. Many people thought it was only inevitable that the terrorists who want to do harm to our country would be successful."

"I think President Bush was a good man, so infuriated and angered by 9/11 that he put on his ideological blinders and forgot that we have other things we represent: civil liberties here at home, a constitution, global human rights," said Brinkley. "Then he started disliking the world community, alienated allies for no reason."

Brinkley, also a CBS News consultant, sees 9/11 as a different kind of turning point.

"He put all the chips on Iraq, took the entire agenda of a new century and played it on one number," Brinkley said. "The presidents that operate with certainty can be great presidents, but you better be right. To be certain and be wrong is a disaster."

There is a handful of presidents usually included in the top tier of historical rankings: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt.

So where will George W. Bush fit in?

Bartlett believes the debate is still too tinged with partisan politics for any objective measure.

"I think the politics of the moment, and they've gotten very acrimonious, will slowly fade," he said. "And then you can have a more dispassionate view of what did this person achieve, what was he trying to do, and was that actually right? My sense is it's going to be a more favorable picture."

So is President Bush's current low rating among historians just liberal bias? Rice University's Douglas Brinkley doesn't buy it.

"When I'm sitting here telling you that Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower were outstanding presidents? These are Republicans," Brinkley said. "I'm telling you Ronald Reagan was one of the five greatest presidents in American history. I'm not saying that because I'm a liberal. I'm just saying it 'cause it's a fact.

"But you have to then accept when I'm telling you George Bush is one of the five worst presidents in American history. It's not 'cause I want to stick it to him. He simply failed on the big questions of his day."

"In his mind he sees himself a little bit like Harry Truman or Abraham Lincoln," said Woodward. "Misunderstood in their time. And we'll have to go to another time to get a really solid historical judgment on that.

"And he's right when he says we'll all be dead, we won't know."